Historic District Plans Preservation of Hand-painted Signs in Old Saybrook

Credit: CT Examiner/Otte


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OLD SAYBROOK — The Old Saybrook Historic District Commission is raising funds to preserve and restore three historic advertisements hand-painted on the side of the Sheffield building at the corner of Main and Sheffield Street. 

The red brick-and-mortar building, a historic landmark constructed by Amos Sheffield in 1853, is the oldest brick commercial building in town. From 1907-1945, it was the Stokes Brothers’ Grocery Store. The store was a place where locals would pick up their mail, sit around on pickle barrels and hear the latest news. They could have fresh vegetables, groceries, hardware and paint delivered in a Ford truck. You could even go there to get your teeth cleaned — the upstairs was the office of Dr. Wolfe, the town’s only dentist. 

In 1952, the building became the site of James A. Crowley Real Estate, which James Crowley founded after retiring as a police officer. According to Barbara Harms, the member of the Old Saybrook Historic District Commission who spearheaded the project, the Crowley firm sold building lots in  Fenwood, Knollwood, Chalker Beach, Indiantown and Saybrook Manor. A recent article in the Harbor News quoted James A. Crowley’s son, an 80-year-old priest living in Higganum, who said that his father painted the sign as housing development was exploding in the 1950s. 

The third sign belongs to the Old Colony Package Store, incorporated in 1958, which still operates in the building. Today, the structure also houses the Village Barber Shop. What remains of the building’s former institutions are the faded imprints of three signs on its outer wall. 

“They are a vestige of the business and popular center of Old Saybrook in the past,” said Harms.  

With the owner’s permission, the commission has contracted the firm John Canning & Co., which specializes in historic preservation, to do the restoration work. It will cost an estimated $40,000 total to restore the signs. 

274 Main Street: Joseph Ranelli, Herbert Stokes and Merle Patrick in the 1920s (Courtesy of OSHDC)

Work on the signs will include preserving the lettering that is still visible with a mixture of Aquazol 500 and alcohol, and then filling in the pieces that have worn away.   

Carl Fortuna, First Selectman of Old Saybrook, said he thought the project would add to the town’s already historic nature. 

“Culturally, it’s another nice touch. It’s another unique thing in our community,” he said. “I think it would be really interesting to bring it back.” 

Fortuna said that the project came with a hefty price tag, however, and that he didn’t think the town would be able to support it financially. 

The Historic District Commission has donated $5,000 to the project — $3,000 to the initial assessment, and $2,000 toward the restoration. They are trying to raise a further $23,000 through a crowdfunding campaign. Sustainable CT, which offers grants to community-led projects in the state, has agreed to match private donations up to $15,000. 

Sustainable CT has in the past funded tree planting campaigns, community gardens and murals — things that can be considered a public benefit.

“Old Saybrook has a rich history and culture,” said Abe Hilding-Salorio, Community Outreach Manager for Sustainable CT. “I think it’s important to preserve those things.” 

The project has so far collected just over $7,000. 

Donations can be made online or by check: “Town of Old Saybrook Land Use Dept.” Memo: “Ghost Signs” and mail it to: 302 Main St., Old Saybrook, CT, 06475. 

The fundraising campaign will last until November 9.  Donations are tax deductible.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.